Jihadists took hundreds of students and staff hostage at a university in the Iraqi city of Ramadi on Saturday, sparking an assault led by special forces in which they were freed, officials said.
And in northern Iraq, heavy fighting between security forces and militants entered a second day, killing 59 people, while a wave of bombings in Baghdad left at least 25 more dead.
In Iraq’s worst violence in years, militants have launched major operations in multiple provinces in recent days that have killed over 200 people and highlighted their long reach.
In Ramadi, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant gunmen infiltrated Anbar University from the nearby Al-Tasha area, killed its guards and then blew up a bridge leading to its main gate, police said.
An AFP journalist said special forces spearheaded an assault to retake the campus, sparking clashes involving heavy gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Security forces “liberated all of the male and female student hostages from the dormitories in Anbar University” and regained control of checkpoints at its entrances, Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said in an emailed statement.
And interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan told AFP that all of the hostages had been freed, without giving casualty figures.
The AFP journalist saw security forces bring in buses to take weeping hostages away from one of the women’s dorms, but said fighting at the university continued afterwards.
Police officers put the number of hostages at the start of the incident at 2,500, though that figure could not be independently confirmed.
Before security forces moved in, a student told AFP by telephone from inside the university that she and other women were ordered to gather in one place, after which the militants’ leader addressed them.
“We will teach you a lesson you will never forget,” he said, according to the student’s account.
The student said the Islamist militant branded the university a “brothel” where women wore makeup, listened to music and mixed with men.
Fear of another attack, she said, will likely discourage students from returning to their studies.
While militants in Iraq have carried out similar attacks in which they occupied buildings and took hostages, the targets have usually been government facilities.
– No space in morgue –
In the northern city of Mosul, heavy fighting between militants and security forces entered its second day on Saturday, killing 21 police and 38 militants, an officer and mortuary employee said.
Dr Mohammed Khalaf said the morgue where he works in the city had received 80 bodies since Friday, and had no space for more.
Fighting erupted in Mosul on Friday morning and continued into the night, while twin suicide bombings targeted a minority group east of the city, and soldiers shot dead suicide bombers to its south.
At least 36 people were killed in Friday’s violence in Mosul and elsewhere in surrounding Nineveh province.
On Saturday, violence also struck the Iraqi capital, where a wave of bombings mainly targeting Shiite-majority areas killed at least 25 people, officials said.
The six car bombings and one roadside bomb, which hit seven different areas, also wounded more than 85 people.
A crisis broke out in the desert province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, in December when security forces dismantled a longstanding Sunni Arab protest camp near provincial capital Ramadi.
Anti-government fighters subsequently seized control of parts of Ramadi and all of Fallujah, to its east, and security forces have so far failed to drive them out.
The United Nations said on Friday that the conflict in Anbar is believed to have forced nearly 480,000 people from their homes.
They join some 1.1 million others displaced by past years of violence in Iraq.
Violence is running at its highest levels since 2006-2007, when tens of thousands were killed in sectarian conflict between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority.
More than 900 people were killed last month, according to figures separately compiled by the United Nations and the government.
So far this year, more than 4,300 people have been killed, according to AFP figures.
Officials blame external factors for the rising bloodshed, particularly the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
But analysts say widespread Sunni Arab anger with the Shiite-led government has also been a major factor.